No More Tears – Breath as a Leit Motif

For the past year, my colleagues and I have been working with a wonderful vocal coach, Martin Lindsay. His sessions are structured in a way that got me thinking. We start with light stretching and breathing exercises, just enough to activate the abdominal muscles and diaphragm. I won’t go into detail about what these exercises entail because I want to focus on the how not the what. The successful how is that these exercises become a leit motif throughout the session; we come back to them regularly, if only briefly. This is such a wonderful way to come back to basics, especially after a difficult passage where tension may have built up. For years I have been thinking of this but using it only haphazardly in my teaching and practice. Wouldn’t it make sense for all of us to use breath awareness as a leit motif on a more regular basis? Imagine how many physical and psychological injuries may be avoided!

I am reminded of a masterclass I attended some years ago given by a high profile flute teacher. The lesson started with a focused breathing session and an intelligent discussion of the breathing process. Then as the student played, she stumbled on a technical passage, over and over again. The teacher, instead of bringing her back to the relaxed and focused state she had at the beginning, continued to berate her for not being prepared. In the end, she was in tears, and I thought, what a shame! Perhaps she didn’t practice enough, but perhaps she didn’t practice well enough? Isn’t it also our job as teachers to address the issue of how to practice? Breathing awareness (whether you do actual exercises or not) should not be just an item on our checklist to be crossed off at the beginning of our session. We have to incorporate our awareness of good breathing in the literal sense of the word: to absorb it into our bodies. This will include repetition just as the development of a difficult passage, or the development of any good habit, will include repetition. To make any practice successful, whether musical, spiritual or the latest diet, it is not enough to just pay lip service. I pledge to make breathing awareness my leit motif.

Looking Inward

Samir_ChatterjeeHere are some notes from a tabla workshop I attended, given by Samir Chatterjee. Like my former teacher, Chatterjee is one of the few Indian musicians who has a clear understanding of the Western education system and is able to teach non-Indians by verbal communication, i.e., someone who can explain his music in a way that makes sense to us.

I won’t get into the technical things we learned, you can find explanations for basic tabla bols here, for example. Or better, from Chatterjee’s Book A Study of Tabla. I’ll only share the personal stuff.

One thing that gave me hope: he said you don’t really become a musician until you are over fifty. Before that you are too busy with yourself. And if you have had a near-death experience, even better!

The Hindustani practice of chilla-khana intrigues me. You are shut in seclusion for 40 days with your instrument for intense study. Breaks are only for bathroom, naps and snacking. The room is darkened and there is no contact with the outside world; however, the process must be monitored by a guru. He talked about the emotions experienced, you might cry for a whole day, then find yourself laughing for no reason. Certainly, the person coming out is very different from the person who went in!

Our senses were created to perceive and make sense of the outside world. Chatterjee mentioned that one aspect of the philosophy of the Vedas is to turn these attentions inward. What happens when we direct these senses inside?

He also spoke of his relationship to his instruments, and the relationship we all develop with our instruments. He maintains that his tablas can speak to him. If I start thinking this is strange, I have to remind myself that it is exactly this I am striving for when improvising or interpreting. How can I speak through my instrument if it is completely stumm? 

And speaking of aging, he told how after a concert he encountered a renowned musician weeping inconsolably. Perhaps someone died? No, this musician, at the age of ninety-five, was finally able to play something he’d been working on his whole life. So if you see me crying after a concert someday, don’t worry!

Harmonic Exercises, with Articulation too!

When playing through the harmonic series, the second overtone (a twelth above the fundamental) is a great check point. When students begin learning harmonics, this one often proves elusive because of the tendency to cover too much of the embouchure hole. By rolling out a bit and blowing down, it usually speaks. The following exercise I find useful because it begins by alternating between the normal fingerings and the harmonic fingerings. For those new to harmonic exercises, it provides a good anchor.


The next page gives a workout for the lips, and introduces articulation to harmonics, although it is also useful to practice legato in bars 13 to 38. I find articulation exercises with harmonics, such as those in Trevor Wye’s book, to be great stabilizers and strengtheners for the embouchure.



Continuing with articulation, I am further inspired by Paul Edmund-Davies’ “The 28 Day Warm Up Book”. His articulation exercises are a mainstay of my warm up, and I decided to go one further and translate some into harmonic exercises. (Read my review of this book here.) This first exercise strengthens the elusive second overtone:



This next one overblows the third overtone. It is for those already strong in this area; please don’t over do it, or any of these exercises. It is useful to combine these variations with Edmund-Davies’ original.



Summer in the Back Seat

This summer has been wild. I’ve had no proper vacation, yet have had a lot of quality family time. Musically it’s been rich, but as far as teaching, I have given up my job at the Conservatory of Bremen. Although it is not a financial blow, it will make my musical life poorer indeed.

I imagine I would have time to devote to students and to build up a good studio when I reach my 60’s. However, 65 is the age of compulsory retirement in Germany (and many other countries). It’s just not fair. If I live out my given life-span, I would have about 20 good years to give and devote to my students. Although I will continue to teach privately, coach and give masterclasses, regular teaching will have to take a back seat, for now at least.

This summer has also been filled with large theater projects, where music may often take a back seat. Seen in a positive light, music becomes just one facet that makes up theatrical life. But it is astonishing how one has to often struggle in order to give the musical facet any substance. I sometimes believe that being a dead composer is the most difficult job in the world. Heaven forbid if you have taken the trouble to print specific directions for staging, costume and lighting. They will be ignored and trampled upon by future generations.

It doesn’t do to be critical though, poor J.S. Bach would likely cringe at my interpretation of his Sonatas. Life goes on.

I will finish with a contradictory thought I can’t get rid of. It seems to me that Contemporary Music is undergoing an institutionalization and a marginalization at the same time. (This is in spite of the critical acclaim that followed Stockhausen’s works at Lincoln Center and the Munich Biennale this summer. However, I stress, it wasn’t the music that drew such media attention.)

Institutionalization is likely a natural progression, it has happened to some extent with “regular” Classical Music and Jazz. By institutionalization of Contemporary Music, I refer to the number of Ensembles and Ensemble Academies that have sprung up, and the specialized Masters Degrees that are available. These are wonderful things!

just what are we broadcasting to the universe?

Marginalization is relative and less easy to define, but I can name a few trends. One is less air-time on radio. Another is academic. It is astonishing how few top contemporary players have top teaching jobs, and I mean full professorships and not just adjunct, assistant, whatever. Sophie Cherrier and Mario Caroli are wonderful exceptions. But what about Robert Dick, who is an amazing teacher? And if the trend continues, I believe that upon retirement, Harrie Starreveld will be replaced in Amsterdam with an orchestral player, not with a premiere contemporary ensemble player and soloist as he is.

Feel free to argue with me on these points, they reflect my rather limited experiences.


Should I Study Flute with Karl Marx?

The short answer is no. Dialectical materialism* has no place in the music room.

Although his beard may have been bushier than Monsieur Taffanel’s.

The long answer is more complicated. I am no expert on the works of Marx, and realize I am using his image for exaggerated effect. My real argument is anti-materialist and I could have just as easily picked on the Bourgeoisie. Read the comments below for quotes on Marx’s ideas on creativity. At the end of the day, we may have a lot in common.

I approach the subject of materialism and economics with some humility and trepidation.  For many of my colleagues in the Netherlands and the USA, economic determinism has reared its ugly head. Many orchestral musicians have lost their source of income and teaching staff have been severely reduced in many music schools and conservatories. The latter has hit me as well. This has made me think more than ever about my teaching responsibilities and, as usual when I have conflicting emotions, spurred a belated adolescent rebelliousness.

Rebelliousness against whom? Against those who teach the lie: “there is a right way and a wrong way to play”, “play it my way because I have a job and a house (or a yacht or whatever), “work hard and you will be rewarded with_____”.

Materialistic success is dangled before the student like a carrot before a donkey. Even worse, the materialistic success of the teacher creates in some cases an arrogant sort of authority. Granted, this may do the trick for some students. A clever teacher will latch on to whatever motivates the student and use it accordingly.

Yet doesn’t it make more sense to train whole musicians? Performers who improvise and compose. Composers who perform (rather than sit at the computer or synthesizer, which then spits out the parts).

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say the opposite of what seems to be the majority opinion. Despite the dwindling opportunities for orchestra work and reduced funding for the arts, this is as good a time as ever for young musicians who have something unique to say. With the internet, the world is your oyster. With the big institutions dying out, this is the time for small enterprises to fill the niches. Finding an orchestra job may be a quicker way to material success, but it is not a given these days. Nor does an orchestra job (or any material success) necessarily equal musical satisfaction or personal happiness. Having a job is hard work. I can vouch for that as a former orchestral player and as a full-time ensemble player. If finances are the only thing keeping you at your job, that is the quickest way to burn-out and bitterness. When things are getting grim for me, I can turn my attention to improvisation, or listen with knowledge and pleasure to Jazz or Carnatic music. Then I thank my former teachers who exposed me to these wonderful things!

This is why I think it is important for students to be exposed to as many ways of making music as possible. How else can you find out what it is you want to express and the best medium for expressing it?

Human beings are not going to stop listening to music entirely. Music will always be there in some form or another, in the background, in the foreground, live in concert or through ear buds. Take heart that you can make music, and get paid for it, if you are courageous, persistent, and seek inspiration. The path may be long or it may be short, but if you want to be heard, you will be! There is no excuse not to be heard, these days.

*Footnote: From my reading I gather that Marx did not coin or make particular use of the term dialectical materialism. It was popularized in a Marxist context  by Stalin in his 1938 paper Dialectical and Historical Materialism. I definitely would not have wanted to study with Stalin.

Newsflash for Teachers: Being an Asshole is Ineffective

Every time I pick up a science news magazine or book I end up smacking my head in disbelief that science goes to such lengths to prove what everybody else knows already. So being an Asshole is an ineffective approach to teaching. Really, a Nobel Prizewinning scientist said so!  I read it in a random book on randomness: The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow. The author tells the story of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics (!). I’ll retell this because here is an interesting twist on “what everybody else knows already”.

While working as a psychology professor at Hebrew University in the 1960s, Kahneman lectured  a group of Israeli air force flight instructors on behavior modification. As a well-read mother of an almost-three year old, I know about behavior modification: rewarding positive behavior works, but punishing mistakes does not. Almost every other parenting book will tell you this. My husband does not agree, but that is another story.

When I read the following passage though, my first connection was not to my son, dear as he is, but to teaching flute. I listen to some teachers brag about how tough they are, and now believe they are driven by a misconception. Perhaps more importantly, this will give us a lesson on how not to talk to ourselves, as we practice for hours on end, give concerts, and play auditions.  I’ll begin quoting from page 7, just mentally replace the word “flight” with “flute”:

Kahneman drove home the point that rewarding positive behavior works but punishing mistakes does not. One of [the pilot instructors] interrupted,…”I’ve often praised people warmly for beautifully executed maneuvers, and the next time they do worse,” the flight instructor said. “And I’ve screamed at people for badly executed maneuvers, and by and large the next time they improve. Don’t tell me that reward works and punishment doesn’t work. My experience contradicts it.” The other flight instructors agreed. To Kahneman the flight instructor’s experiences rang true. On the other hand, Kahneman believed in the animal experiments that demonstrated that reward works better than punishment. […] And then it struck him: the screaming preceded the improvement, but contrary to appearances it did not cause it.

How can that be? The answer lies in a phenomenon called regression toward the mean. That is, in any series of random events an extraordinary event is most likely to be followed, due purely to chance, by a more ordinary one. Here is how it works: The student pilots all had a certain personal ability to fly fighter planes. Raising their skill level involved many factors and required extensive practice, so although their skill was slowly improving through flight training, the change wouldn’t be noticeable from one maneuver to the next. Any especially good or especially poor performance was thus mostly a matter of luck. So if a pilot made an exceptionally good landing – one far above his normal level of performance – then the odds would be good that he would perform closer to his norm – that is, worse – the next day. And if
his instructor had praised him, it would appear that the praise had done no good. But if a pilot made an exceptionally bad landing – […] then the odds would be good that the next day he would perform closer to his norm – that is, better. And if his instructor had a habit of screaming “you clumsy ape” when the student performed poorly, it would appear that his criticism did some good. In this way an apparent pattern would emerge: student performs well, praise does no good; student performs poorly, instructor compares student to lower primate at high volume, student improves. The instructors in Kahneman’s class had concluded that their screaming was a powerful educational tool. In reality it made no difference at all.

So the next time you or anyone else crash and burn, it’s fine to mull it over and figure out what went wrong, but it doesn’t pay to be an asshole about it – especially to yourself. And besides, apes are higher primates, not lower primates.

but I was going for that high D!

Bring in the Clones

Read an interview by almost any famous flute teacher today from our Western culture and you will notice they share similar ideals. The development of a student’s individuality is given high priority. Their students are encouraged to find their own musical identities; they don’t want clones or sound-alikes.

Nor do I. But what I’m about to say will at first seem like a contradiction. I am aware that I am in a different position than the stellar players and teachers of our time. I don’t have a bunch of sycophants and wannabees trailing in my wake. Therefore, I can enjoy a bit of skepticism in the face of this idealistic individualism.

Peter Lloyd, with whom I studied for 4 years, shared this ideal, and took it to an extreme. Even when he was still playing (as he was when I studied with him 1988 – 1992), he would not play for us in lessons. He didn’t want us sounding like him. I asked him why not, since we came out of our lessons talking like him (joking, of course. He has a great posh accent.) His reply: “Good, you’re finally learning to speak properly!” This humor as well as his patience saved me, nurturing and bringing back to life what was left of me after my dismal undergraduate years. I have much thank him for. However, since I was so good at hiding my real problems, my playing still left much to be desired when I left Indiana. And I still didn’t have a clue who I was as a musician. I was too confused to even have a clear ideal of sound, I wanted to sound French, but with American verve, and English full-bodiedness. One thing was clear, I was sure I could find it by following the Contemporary Music path, not the Early Music or orchestral path. Perhaps I sympathized with late 20th century Modernism; it was striving to find itself as much as I was.

Harrie Starreveld

That path led to Amsterdam, where I studied flute with  Harrie Starreveld and classical South Indian music with Rafael Reina and Jahnavi Jayaprakash. Harrie does not have any particular philosophy regarding playing in lessons, but most of what I learned came from listening to him and playing with him, often in an apprentice-type situation with the Nieuw Ensemble. That is what it took for me. No one would even say that I sound at all like Harrie: I don’t, but I cannot stress how much this experience helped me to find my voice.

Four years after my studies with Harrie I went to India for two and a half weeks to work with Jahnavi Jayaprakash privately in Bangalore, and the scales seemed to fall from my eyes. I wondered if our Western musical education was not entirely bass-ackwards. Everything we learn seems to be from the top down, instead of the bottom up. In India, the idea that you can learn music by verbal explanation only and hope to develop a musical spirit in a vacuum of abstract ideas is ludicrous. That one can study without the rote learning which frees one technically and enables inspiration to soar – also ridiculous!

But rote learning is BAD, a well-known European flute teacher told me recently. I’m tending to disagree. Rote learning without any understanding at all is bad, but I think we tend to throw the baby out with the bath water.

Jahnavi Jayaprakash

Indian classical music education does not eschew the technical, analytical or theoretical, but as I understand, it comes when one has already mastered one’s voice or instrument. My teacher Jahnavi had her Doctorate from an Indian University in music and could explain the intricacies of each nuance of a Raga for Westerners like me. But that was not how she normally taught. Mastering music means learning the language of music and all its subtleties not only through the intellect, but through the ear and the heart, by method of imitation. It is a somatic as well as an intellectual process. The great diversity among South Indian flute players is a living testament to individuality despite the massive rote learning and imitative method of their studies.

This is not a “grass is greener” essay. I don’t think if I had learned the Indian way from the beginning it would have completely solved all my problems. I do enjoy analysis, and was good at theory, and was glad to learn it young. But I do wish I had had someone to sonically follow in my earliest years.

Teacher: “Could you play that more legato?”

Me, saying: “Oh, OK.”

Me, thinking: “huh, how? Wasn’t that legato?”

Having someone to just play for me might have avoided crisis and saved me a lot of time, but maybe I was destined to have such a long and hurdle-ridden path. For many young players today this from-the-top-down musical education is less of a problem, thanks to the proliferation of Suzuki teachers. I am speaking only on behalf of those like myself, who come from the traditional marching- or wind-band school education.

I do not want my students to slavishly follow me, and I certainly don’t wish my bad habits on them. However, I do play for them whenever possible, and expect them to strive to my standards, and higher. There is of course the danger that my students might superficially sound like me, but I am fully convinced they will get over it.

photo credits:
Dolly: Stephen Ferry/Getty Images
Harrie Starreveld and Jahnavi Jayaprakash, unknown